A collection of ancient mosaic Medusa heads.

 

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Medusa head, Dion, Greece. Photo: @helenmilesmosaics

Mosaic Medusa heads: warding off evil.

Hello, hello, I’m back! Is anyone there? Coo-eeeeeeee (echos reverberating down the corridors of mosaic lovers). Let me just walk in, sit down for a moment and take a deep breath in and another long one out. There, that’s better.

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Medusa head, Sparta, 3rd century, Greece. Photo: @helenmilesmosaics

Shall I regale you with tales of the move? Do you really want to hear about boxes piled up to the ceiling and mountains of packaging, the multiple runs to the municipal recycling centre and charity shops, the scraps of love, the hordes of letters, the 1970s diaries, the 80s boob tubes, and the sense of quiet and not so quiet panic at the number of unidentified socks that are still heaped up in a corner? I doubt it. So instead it seems appropriate to talk about mosaic Medusa heads – partly because I have felt not unlike one myself over recent weeks and partly because in all the relocating confusion I have at least been spared the obligation of finding a Gorgon to put on my doormat.

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Archeological Musem of Palencia, Spain

When the Romans were setting up house they didn’t get off so lightly. I have already written about similarities between mosaics across the ancient world, but it was only recently that I have noticed that there are an astonishing number of mosaic Medusa heads. Fiece, scary ones with bulgling eyes, fey ones with vapid stares, ones that are almost line drawings in their simplicity and others rendered in great detail.

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Medusa head, Bignor Roman Villa, West Sussex, UK. Photo: @romanobritian.org

The number of ancient mosaic Medusa heads (which must be only a fraction of the ones that were actually made) far exceeds expectation or coincidence. Does this suggest that the belief in the Medusa’s power to ward off evil was deeply embedded in the ancient psyche and that Roman householders had a good deal more to worry about than where to position the day beds? Or that fashion was so rigid that a mosaic Medusa head was de rigueur for all households of a certain social pretension?

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Medusa head, Sparta Archaeological Museum, Greece. Photo: @helenmilesmsoaics

The first impression is that these weren’t just idle talismen, the Roman equivalent of a hand of Fatima or Evil Eye displayed near the front door. The obiquitiousnes of the mosaic Medusa heads and the fact that they are often the central piece in an elaborate psychodelic design of ellipses or spiralling triangles, indicates that the Medusa motif was believed to exert real power in a world where life was precarious and danger was never far away.

medusa, brading roman villa, isle of wight. andantetravels.com
Medusa head, Brading Roman Villa, Isle of Wight, UK. Photo: @andantetravels.com.

Mosaic Medusa heads: the myth

As legend would have it, Medusa was once a beautiful woman who attracted the attention of Poseidon. Athena, furious that Poseidon raped Medusa in her temple, punished Medusa by transforming her into a monster whose locks of hair became writhing snakes. Anyone who looked at her turned into stone. Medusa was later beheaded by Perseus, the son of Zeus, who kept her head to use as a weapon because it still retained its powers.

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Medusa head, Alexandria National Museum, Egypt. Photo: @zippytales

Mosaic Medusa heads turn up all over the Roman world from Britian’s Northern shores to Spain, Greece, Tunisia and beyond. Many show truncated wings on the monster’s brow referring to the belief that Medusa, along with her two immortal sisters, had the power of flight. Most of the mosaic representations strip away her femininity and turn her into a chubby faced youth, sparing their owners the potential embarassment of inadvertently turning their guests into lumps of stone by having the monster’s gaze slightly askew.

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Medusa head, Sousee Archaeological Museum, Tunisia. Photo: @wikipedia.

Interestingly in this mosaic of Alexander the Great from Pompeii, a Medusa head is even depicted on the warrior’s breast plate protecting him in battle.

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Alexander the Great with Medusa head breast plate armour, Naples Archaeological Museum, Italy. Photo: @wikipedia

Mosaic Medusa heads: a statement

But maybe these sideways-looking glances and even the bold frontal stares indicate that the Romans, far from retaining real faith in Medusa’s powers, felt immune from them. With their vast empire and clever inventions, the Romans might have considered themselves somewhat superior to the ancient Greeks from whom the Medusa myth was dervived. By having the monster in your sitting room perhaps you were actually letting everyone know how modern and sophisticated you were like adding a classical portico to your electric-gated executive home.

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Medusa head, Palace of the Grand Masters, Rhodes, Greece. Photo: @helenmilesmosaics

Afterall, a terrifying creature that you walk across routinely in your bare feet is not going to be terrifying for long. Moreover, we know from the gladitorial and hunting scenes that the Romans didn’t shy away from using mosaics to show violent acts in all their gory detail so it seems to me that if they wanted to depict a truly scary monster they would have done so. But these mosaic Medusa heads can be whimsically appealing:

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Medusa head, Athens Archaeological Museum, Greece. Photo: @helenmilesmosaics

Or downright silly:

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Medusa head, Benaki Museum, Athens, Greece. Photo: @helenmilesmosaics

In many ways the most striking thing about these mosaic Medusa heads is the pattern that often surrounds them:

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Medusa head in radiating patterned surround, Palazzo Massimo, Rome, Italy. Photo: @helenmilesmosaics

I assume the pattern in itself – its mesmerising, dazzling effect – did the job of petrifying (in the literal sense) any unwelcome intruder as much as the ghoulish appearance of the severed head. It is interesting that I have only come across one example of the pattern without a Medusa at its centre. This one from Corinth, Greece, which dates from the 2-3rd century AD, has replaced a Gorgon with a head of Dionysos. But look how similar Dionysos’ features and hair are to the typical Medusas we’ve seen above. Did a young wife, hotheaded and flush with youth and love, stamp her pretty foot and demand something a little more up to date for her hallway than an old fusty Medusa?

Dionysos mosaic, Corinth, Greece.
Head of Dionysos in Spirograph pattern surround, Corinth, Greece. Photo: @helenmilesmosaics

It’s tempting to speculate that perhaps the prevelance of mosaic Medusa heads refer to a time, rather like our own, when society was moving between two belief systems – one old, entrenched and familiar but not necessarily any longer revered. And the other new, not yet established and still slightly unsettling. Christianity was taking hold and the Romans were endlessly expanding and innovating – travelling, trading, conquering – and it must have been comforting to have something of the old world in times of rapid change.

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Medusa head, Princeton Art Museum, USA.

Just as today’s couples who don’t believe in God still choose to marry in churches so perhaps the Roman house builders commissioning mosaics for their reception rooms wanted something that had the gravitas of age and carried a little of the magic and mystique of earlier times when life was simpler and they didnt have to worry about what the future held.

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Medusa head, National Archeological Museum of Tarragona.
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Medusa head, 3rd century, Sfax Archaeological Museum, Tunisia. Thank you to Katelijne Leemans for identifying it!
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Medusa head, Canania, Spain. 2-3rd Century AD. Photo: @The Hispanic Society of America.
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Medusa head, Badisches Landesmuseum Karlsruhe, Germany.

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4 Comments

  1. Katelijne Leemans

    Dear Helen,
    nice hearing from you again !
    Last mosaic is Roman, 3rd century, floor m,osaic from baths at Thaenae (present day Henchir Thina), Sfax Museum, Tunesia.
    Info from book ‘Stories in Stone’ Getty Museum.
    Greetings, Kat

    1. Thanks so much for this, Lillian. I knew about the Getty one but couldn’t get an image so I decided to leave it out but I agree it’s well worth a mention. Particular thanks for the Bachor riff. I aboslutely love it. Typical Bachor fun and wit.

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